“I need to make my Taj Mahals,” Sanjay Leela Bhansali said in an interview, explaining his predilection for grand themes and visual extravaganzas. The music in his films has echoed those theatrics – buoyant folk tunes, high-pitched ballads, and violin-heavy Western classical-type operatic pieces to back up the darker moments in the films.

Bhansali turned music director with Guzaarish in 2010. The music directors he had worked with were no longer getting it right, he said; his ideas were getting “lost in translation” and his own voice in the making of the music “was getting stronger”.

The filmmaker, who has composed the music for four of his films, including the forthcoming Padmavati, cites a range of influences, from Hindustani vocalists Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Pandit Omkarnath Thakur and Roshan Ara Begum to Hindi film music directors Madan Mohan and Naushad. But his key premise has been that the music must be integrated into the situations and around the characters – not for him the recent trend of having songs in the background or as an afterthought.

The music of Guzaarish included the use of interesting rhythms, as in Tera Zikr Hai. In parts of the album, the ghost of films past appears hard to shake off – for example, in Dhundli Dhundli, and in the tuneful Sau Gram Zindagi by Kunal Ganjawala, both of which hark back to Saawariya.

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Sau Gram Zindagi, Guzaarish (2010).

Udi Teri Aankhon Se, with its salsa beats and strong vocals by Sunidhi Chauhan and Shail Hada, adds some zing to the proceedings. In the other songs, however, the piano and violin heavy arrangements fail to resonate – if a minimalist effect was intended, it ended up being mostly sterile.

Bhansali’s musical effort has worked better on the larger canvases of Goliyon Ki Rasleela Rameela (2013) and Bajirao Mastani (2015), with their epic plots and numerous dramatic situations. Here, he has the liberty to use elaborate orchestration and energetic rhythms, and mix traditional and contemporary sounds to tuneful effect.

Bhansali has also been a choreographer himself, and where there are dances, the music in his films flows easily, regardless of who the music composer is.

In Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ramleela, Bhansali comes into his own, scoring the energetic Nagada Sang Dhol and also skillfully adapting Lahu Munh Lag Gaya to a garba beat. Ram Chahe Leela, a cabaret-in-a-rural-setting, has an energy of its own, helped along by Bhoomi Trivedi’s full-throated vocals and clever lyrics by Siddharth-Garima.

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Ram Chahe Leela, Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ramleela (2013).

The pace slows down in Ang Laga De Re, which begins well but falters after the first stanza. Yeh Laal Ishq has a hint of AR Rahman’s Sufi chants, and could well be a ghazal with its delicate melody and rhythm, and Arijit Singh in fine form.

Ishqyaun Dhishqyaun is clearly a throwback to the Govinda era and appears to have been composed just so that a tune could be found for the inevitable wordplay around bullets and guns.

Which leaves Tattad Tattad, Ranveer Singh’s muscle-and-bike show. It makes for great visuals – chaniya cholis in every colour possible swirl around Singh who strips to his jeans – but falls flat in the music department. It probably worked well during Navratri that year, but we haven’t heard much of it after that. The tune is to blame. Surely Singh’s abs deserved better.

Goliyon…may have raised Bhansali’s confidence but the music of Bajirao Mastani is a notch lower in terms of melody. Pinga and Malhari became the film’s signature songs as well as subjects of controversy, with Maharashtrian groups claiming they misrepresented historical facts and also the dance forms and their purpose.

Controversies apart, Pinga’s only lyrical connection to any sort of folk form is the refrain “pinga ga pori pinga”, which makes the number popular and hummable. The prelude to the song echoes Latpat Latpat Tujhya Chalana from V Shantaram’s Amar Bhoopali.

In Malhari, it is the beat that amps up the energy to match the fervour of the victorious king and his troops. But the melody is commonplace – if you didn’t know about the visuals, this could sound like the revelry of a youth club marking a recent cricketing success.

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Malhari, Bajirao Mastani (2015).

In Deewani Mastani, a Marathi folk prelude – a faraway traditional tutari and a heady rhythm– heralds Mastani’s arrival in court and segues neatly into a Persian-Afghan theme, with an oud refrain throughout the number. The melody is pleasing, elevated by the rhythm and the ever capable Shreya Ghoshal.

The superior composition is Mohe Rang Do Laal, with Ghoshal tuning into the thumri-like melody, kathak bols by Birju Maharaj and elaborate orchestration that includes a festive shehnai.

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Mohe Rang Do Laal, Bajirao Mastani (2015).

Since this is a show of royalty and pomp, the rousing Ganesh aarti Jaydev Jaydev acquires wartime decibel levels in Gajanana and the otherwise subtle Albela Sajan is larger than life too, with a shehnai and a formidable chorus, composed in raag Bhupali. Javed Bashir and Arijit Singh add subtle turns in Aaj Ibadat and Aayat respectively, but stop just short of being memorable. But they are good examples of what Bhansali’s sensibilities can and might achieve if he dares to take the risk.

Expectations from the Padmavati soundtrack are high. The Rajasthan-royalty setting promises plenty of scope for ballads and war songs, the extensive use of string instruments and raag Maand.

Bhansali’s voice has got stronger. Will he use it to play new and surprising tunes?

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Padmavati (2017).